A news item in a recent issue of Christianity Today reported that the Albanian Minister of Culture recently signed an agreement giving legal recognition to 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance. I could not help but smile when I read the report.
When I was a student in seminary, Albania was the particular focus of prayer in the Student Missions Fellowship. I had never heard of the country before. The president of SMF told us that its chief distinctive was that it was the world’s first officially atheist country. So that year we prayed for Albania.
I wish I could tell you that I prayed with bold faith and conviction that one day Albania would be open to the gospel. But that would be a lie. I did pray for Albania. And I did ask God to open its doors to the gospel. But I prayed mostly out of a sense of duty. As I recall, my first prayer went something like this: “God, I know you can do anything. But it’s really hard for me to believe that you can do anything with this. Nevertheless, open Albania to the gospel.” In truth, I thought it was highly unlikely that anything would happen as a result of those prayers. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Several years after I graduated from seminary and was serving as a pastor in a church in central Illinois, I received a brochure in the mail from a mission organization. Two things about the brochure captured my attention. One was the fact that the mission was looking for farmers. The other was that it wanted to send them to Albania. “Albania?” I wondered. “Isn’t that the country we used to pray about in Student Missions Fellowship?” Our church was in the early stages of its missions program at the time and I passed the brochure on to Dave VanOrman, one of the farmers in the congregation.
It was a long shot. Dave was a busy farmer. He didn’t seem a likely candidate for this kind of adventure. But to my great surprise, Dave went to Albania. When the trip was over, he immediately bought another plane ticket and went back, this time taking his wife Sarah with him. Then they went back again. And again. Before I knew it, Dave and Sarah had organized the Planter’s Seed Foundation and for years they have been helping Albanian farmers, working with women in the villages and sharing the love of Jesus Christ with young people. Recently the Planter’s Seed Foundation observed its first baptismal celebration. I would never have thought such a thing was possible. Certainly not back in 1985 when the Student Missions Fellowship was praying for Albania.
So I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that the 135 churches of the Albanian Evangelical Alliance were given legal recognition this past November. I immediately thought of Dave and Sarah. And of my days as a seminary student, when my prayers for Albania were more like those of the man in Mark 9 who prayed, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” than anything else. Those prayers were as much a confession of my doubt as they were an expression of my faith. The Bible says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1). And sometimes the fruit of faith is the substance of things we wouldn’t believe, if we hadn’t seen them with our own eyes. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.